Pressure and fullness in your upper abdomen is clearly uncomfortable. But figuring out why the top of your stomach feels bloated isn't always as straightforward.
Bloating is a feeling of fullness in the abdomen. It can be accompanied by discomfort or distension — where your stomach is visibly swollen and your pants feel too tight.
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It's not uncommon to occasionally feel a little bloated under your ribs or in your stomach after a big meal, says April Panitz, RDN, CDN, cofounder of Amenta Nutrition in New York. "But when it occurs frequently, it's time to investigate why."
Here, some of the most common causes of upper belly bloat and what you can do to feel better.
1. Swallowing Excess Air
It's normal to swallow some air while eating, drinking or talking, which can build up in the body until we burp or pass it out as gas. Even if you're waking up bloated, you could be swallowing air in your sleep.
"However when too much air is swallowed, the air that isn't released will make its way to the stomach," Panitz explains. As a result, you might feel a sensation of bloating, fullness or pressure.
What's more, gulping down extra air is easy to do. It can happen when you chew gum or suck on hard candy, or if you wear dentures that aren't fitted correctly, says the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG). Sinus conditions like postnasal drip (mucus that drips down the back of your throat, which can cause frequent coughing or throat-clearing) can make you swallow more air too.
2. Eating Too Much Too Quickly
Having another bite or helping when you're already full can easily push your stomach to the point of discomfort, Panitz notes.
And chowing down at lightning speed can have a similar effect: It takes 20 minutes or more for satiety signals from your stomach to reach your brain, so if you polish off your plate faster than that, you may not yet realize that you've had enough — and reach for more food, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Also? Eating very fast can make it harder to thoroughly chew your food, per experts at Northwestern Medicine. As a result, your stomach is forced to digest down larger, harder-to-break-down food particles, which can cause the sensation of indigestion.
3. Drinking Carbonated Beverages
The bubbles in drinks like seltzer, soda or beer are filled with extra air. And when you sip, those gases go straight to your stomach and can cause you to feel bloated, says the ACG.
That burning feeling in the center of your chest or upper abdomen that gets worse when you bend over or lay down can also leave you bloated or with the sensation of being uncomfortably full. (When heartburn happens regularly and is severe, it's typically diagnosed as GERD.)
Heartburn happens when the valve that separates the esophagus and stomach doesn't close properly, allowing acid from the stomach to splash back up toward the throat, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Pregnant people and those who regularly take anti-inflammatory drugs or aspirin are particularly prone, but heartburn can also happen from eating certain foods, eating large meals or noshing very close to bedtime.
5. Stress or Anxiety
Chronic stress or anxiety can make your stomach ache and have a negative effect on digestion, explains Ashkan Farhadi, MD, gastroenterologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
"We know that the gut is bidirectionally connected to the central nervous system via the brain-gut axis," he says. That's why "when you're stressed, you can have stomach discomfort and hypersensitivity."
Feeling anxious can make you more prone to swallowing excess air, too.
6. Food Intolerance or Hard-to-Digest Foods
When you eat a food that doesn't agree with your system, bloating, gas and cramps are some of the ways your body may let you know.
Milk, cheese and ice cream are among the most common culprits — they contain the sugar lactose, which many people aren't able to digest, per the ACG.
Foods high in hard-to-break down carbohydrates can cause bloating too, especially cruciferous vegetables, beans and wheat.
Gastroparesis or slowed gastric emptying is a condition that affects the movement of the stomach muscles. "It can leave you with a loss of appetite and/or feeling full after eating a small amount of food," Panitz says. In some cases, the condition can also make you feel nauseous or even vomit.
Experts don't fully understand the cause of gastroparesis. But it can be a complication of diabetes or occur temporarily after surgery. Medications like opioid pain relievers, antidepressants, high blood pressure drugs and drugs to treat allergies can trigger gastroparesis too, notes the Mayo Clinic.
8. Serious Stomach Conditions
In some cases, a persistent feeling of bloating or discomfort in the upper abdomen could be a sign of a more serious stomach problem like a stomach infection, gallstones, an ulcer or pancreas problems, Dr. Farhadi says.
If your swollen upper abdomen is accompanied by a fever, severe pain, vomiting or bleeding, see a doctor right away.
How Do You Get Rid of Upper Abdominal Bloating?
Good news: Upper belly bloat can often be managed at home with simple lifestyle changes. Here are some of the most effective ways to keep bloating at bay or find relief.
1. Eat Slower
Munching at a more leisurely pace can leave you more comfortable after meals and possibly prevent upper abdominal bloating after eating.
"You'll take in fewer large gulps of air," Panitz says. "You'll also chew your food more thoroughly, which means less work and time in the stomach because it's already broken down."
Eating slower will also help you sense when you're full, which can help you eat less. Set a timer for 20 minutes and aim to take at least that long to finish your food.
2. Limit Carbonated Beverages
Cutting out the bubbles can go a long way toward stopping upper stomach bloating, the ACG says. Switch to plain water with a squeeze of lemon or lime, muddled fresh herbs or berries.
3. Steer Clear of Gum and Hard Candies
Again, avoiding excess chewing and sucking will keep extra air out of your system and reduce the chances for bloat.
4. Rule Out Offending Foods
Pinpoint which menu items make you uncomfortable so you can avoid or eat less of them. Keeping a journal of what you eat and how you felt afterward can help, Dr. Farhadi says.
If tracking your food intake and symptoms feels overwhelming or you're having trouble cutting a particular food out of your diet, a registered dietitian can help.
5. Sip an Herbal Tea
Peppermint, chamomile, ginger, turmeric and fennel teas are all good options for supporting healthy digestion, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And better digestion can mean less gas and bloating.
6. Try an OTC Med
Antacids like Tums ($7.98, Amazon) can be helpful for neutralizing heartburn quickly, Panitz says.
If gas and bloating are the problem, try a surfactant like Gas-X ($13.29, Amazon). "It breaks large bubbles into smaller bubbles, making them easier to pass," she explains.
7. Get Moving
Take a walk or head out for a bike ride after eating to combat a distended upper abdomen.
"Mild physical activity has been shown to help speed up gas elimination and digestive transit, which can help with bloating," says Panitz.
8. Stay on Top of Stress
Managing your mental health just might help soothe your stomach woes, Dr. Farhadi says. Try one of these exercises the next time you start to feel overwhelmed.
9. See a Dentist or ENT
If you suspect your dentures aren't placed correctly, getting them refitted could help you swallow less air and reduce bloating.
On the other hand, an ENT can help you get problems like postnasal drip under control.
When to See a Doctor
Contact your doctor for bloating that is doesn't go away after a week, is very painful or is accompanied by fever, vomiting or bleeding, recommends the Cleveland Clinic. These could be signs of a serious stomach condition.
In other words: "They need to be investigated quickly," Dr. Farhadi says.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.